Newsfeature: What's next for Abu Sayyaf?
By Menardo Wenceslao
General Santos City (3 September) -- The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has a new leader: Ustadz Yasser Igasan. According to army commander General Romeo Tolentino, Igasan is a religious scholar, not a warrior. Sulu Representative Yusof Jikiri said he had heard Igasan was "very spiritual," but he also noted Igasan was a Tausog, an ethnic group known as fierce fighters.
When the news first leaked that ASG commanders had met to choose a new leader, not much was known about Igasan. Since then, a more complete portrait has emerged. Igasan, in his 40s, was among the original members of ASG, along with its founder, Ustadz Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani. In 1993, Igasan was a classmate of Abdurajak's brother, Khaddafy Janjalani, at Darul Imam Shafin, an Islamic institution in Marawi City.
Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law, established Darul Imam Shafin in 1988. Khalifa's International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) funded the religious school. The IIRO ostensibly was engaged in charity work. Investigators say Khalifa was funneling funds to terrorists and supporting secessionist movements in the southern Philippines. He was ASG's link to al-Qaeda. The Philippine Anti-Money Laundering Council has since frozen IIRO accounts.
As a teenager, Igasan reportedly traveled to Afghanistan to fight the then-Soviet army. How involved Igasan was in any fighting is unclear. The Arabs of al-Qaeda and their Taliban allies regarded Southeast Asian Muslims as not real Muslims. They often gave them lesser duties in camp.
Igasan met Janjalani in Afghanistan, and the two talked about a separate Islamic state in the Philippines. When they returned home, they cooperated in establishing the Abu Sayyaf Group. Igasan was in the first ASG camp in Basilan—Camp Al-Madinah. He was there when marines overran the camp. Igasan also was with the Abu Sayyaf guerrillas who raided the town of Ipil in 1995, killing more than 50 people. He reportedly was wounded during the army's pursuit operation.
In 1998, Janjalani's death left ASG with three choices for a new leader or emir: Igasan, Khadaffy Janjalani and Radulan Sahiron. The election quickly became a choice between Igasan and Khadaffy. Those who favored Igasan noted that although he and Khadaffy were fellow students at Darul Imam Shafi, it was Igasan that Khalifa had appointed "mushrif"—top of the class. Igasan subsequently became head of Quranic Studies for the IIRO.
Igasan also was Khadaffy's senior by three years and thus had three years more field experience. Igasan's supporters believed he had religious credentials almost as good as those of the elder Janjalani. In the end, however, the field commanders threw their support behind Khaddafy, the dead emir's brother.
By the late 1990s, Igasan had left the Philippines for further Islamic studies in Libya and Syria. He took a lesser role in ASG after Khaddafy's election and left the country again in 2001. This time, he traveled to Saudi Arabia as an overseas Filipino worker, but it was a cover for his real activities.
Igasan made contact with Abu Abdurahman, who was involved with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Igasan began to funnel money from jihadist supporters in Saudi Arabia to Abu Sayyaf. He also might have facilitated the travel of two unidentified militants from Yemen, who were in Basilan with ASG. They left for Mindanao with Khadaffy and his second-in-command, Abu Solaiman. Hostages confirmed the unidentified Yemenis were present when the militants celebrated the September 2001 attacks in the United States.
ASG commanders might have supported Igasan's election because of his foreign contacts. They badly need funding, and Igasan's past activities provide the guerrillas with legitimacy as jihadists rather than common criminals. Igasan's next move likely will be to target Westerners in kidnappings for ransom, particularly foreign aid workers, businessmen and tourists. The abductions also can be a tactic to persuade foreign militants that Abu Sayyaf is part of the global jihad.
Igasan's religious credentials make him an equal religious authority with the Muslim religious scholars who have issued fatwas, or religious edicts, condemning ASG. His background also could curry favor with Ustadz Habier Malik, a renegade member of the Moro National Liberation Front who withdrew from a peace agreement with the government. In addition, Igasan as leader would make Abu Sayyaf more appealing to the regional Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group.
Sources inside the Moro Islamic Liberation Front discount all the speculation about Igasan. They say ASG has adopted the loose "inverted pyramid system of leadership" favored by al-Qaeda. Such a leadership style allows individual commanders autonomy to protect the secrecy of their operations. It means that Igasan would function as a spiritual guide rather than operational planner. (MW/PIA-SarGen) [top]